Mutant Hybrids: Penny Smith's Recent Stoneware and Porcelain

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DURING THE LATTER PART OF 2007, PENNY SMITH, was invited to mount a solo exhibition at the Carnegie Gallery in Hobart, Tasmania. This non-commercial gallery, run by the Hobart City Council, has been showcasing small survey exhibitions of prominent artists working in Tasmania for several years now and it provided an excellent opportunity to review her recent work in porcelain and stoneware. (1)

On a number of occasions in what is now almost forty years of professional practice as a ceramist and designer, Penny Smith has produced exhibitions with a carefully defined theme--both of her own work and in a number of exhibitions that she has curated over the past 20 years. In this latter career as a curator, she has been responsible for researching and developing several historically important exhibitions including Common Earth: Alive and Unfired [1985], an exhibition that was generated out of a series of artist-in-residencies held in Hobart; Insite: Art for Public Places [1988] which was shown at the Plimsoll Gallery, University of Tasmania and which was accompanied by an informative catalogue documenting works of public art in Tasmania; (2) and Profiles: International Tableware Design [1991-1992] for which she was guest curator at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery [TMAG]. (3) This significant exhibition, which toured to the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, brought together a comprehensive contemporary collection of tableware by leading international designers and manufacturers. The exhibition entered the TMAG collection and now provides important documentation of then-current styles of tableware.

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Profiles reflected a long-standing interest that Penny Smith has had in the field of production tableware and in her own practice this has been a relatively constant theme. She has undertaken a number of research trips to Europe and North America since the 1980s to increase her knowledge of small-scale industrial processes and was awarded an influential artist-in-residency at the Arabia tableware factory in Helsinki, Finland in 1995. This led to an exciting and productive period of research and manufacture of slip-cast and press-moulded ceramics, first in Helsinki and later in Hobart, particularly in the Ceramics Research Unit, which she and colleague Les Blakebrough developed in the 1990s. Two fine themed exhibitions emerged from this research--Lightworks 1, shown at the Arabia Gallery in 1995 and a substantial survey exhibition, Lightworks 11 which was shown in 1996 at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. (4) As their names imply, these two shows had as their principal motif the theme of light, a theme that was carried in a series of elegant forms that had first been imagined in Barcelona in 1992 when she stayed with partner John Smith, who had been awarded the Australia Council residency that year.

Employing an abstraction of the shape of a bull's horn, a number of forms were designed and developed and then transferred to a series of slip-cast moulds that allowed her to reproduce limited production series of vases and lamps. One particularly beautiful series, further developed at Arabia, is a group of 'horns'--about half a metre high--that begins with a conical form that has a radical curve at its centre; three further conical forms then gradually straighten towards the vertical so that one gets a sense of a serial unfolding. Each 'lightwork' sits on a striking textured stoneware base which, with its black glaze, helps to emphasise the quality of lightness and translucence of the sinuous and curvy bone china forms. Decoration is limited to a surface of sgraffito curlicues each of which is pierced at the centre and, with the introduction of electric light, each becomes an ethereal ambient lighting source, with a warm glow spreading across the whole form while sharp pinpoints of light shine through the piercings. …